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The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife Hardcover – April 5, 2011
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Marc Freedman, hailed by the New York Times as "the voice of aging baby boomers [seeking] meaningful and sustaining work later in life," makes an impassioned call to accept the decades opening up between midlife and anything approximating old age for what they really are -- an entirely new stage of life, which he dubs the encore years. In The Big Shift, Freedman bemoans the fact that the discussion about longer lives in America has been entirely about the staggering economic costs of a dramatically aging society when, in reality, most of the nation
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He then gives a good example of a woman named "Meredith Mackenzie," who "created her own gap year" when she took a 2-year retreat in a small house. She had already had one shift - gone to law school and realized she didn't want to be a lawyer. She moved into a 300-sq ft converted garage in Kernville, Nevada. There's a great quote on page 24: " The change in life directions is usually much messier in real life than in magazine features."
That's the best part of the book and I wish he'd pursued it. He spends a lot of time noting that we have few guidelines for the new midlife.
I liked p 85 where his mother in law defines her life stage with, "I'm on my next to last dog."
The weakest part of the book comes in the suggestions for what "we as a society" ought to be doing. The feasibility of these ideas is way beyond the control of most of us. The majority of readers will want to know the answers to 2 questions: "Who else is dealing with these issues?" and, "What can I learn from them?"
The Big Shift gives partial answers. Many exemplars come from strong corporate backgrounds so they have a lot to bring to the table when they enter the non-profit arena. Others opt for education, exploration and special programs. It seems to be a combination of luck and energy ... exactly the same qualities you need for a life transition at any age.
In The Big Shift author Marc Freedman answers questions that concern all of us who want to age well. How do we become "elders" -- that is, wisdom bearers -- rather than regress into a second childhood? How do we avoid being an economic drain on society, without competing with the young for jobs? How do we stay involved in our communities and leave a positive imprint on the world, even as we face being marginalized because of age-ism?
In answering these questions, Freedman argues that accepted ideas about aging no longer hold true. People are living longer, having families later in life, and facing more financial uncertainty. The era of necessarily retiring in one's sixties to a life of golf and bridge is over. And according Freedman, that's a good thing, because many people come into their highest creative energy and deepest intelligence during their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Freedman calls these years the Encore Stage - the phase that opens up between the middle years and late life, and he believes society has much to gain by harnessing the talent, wisdom, and experience of people who have lived long and learned.
Based on interviews with older people who have re-made their lives to better fit their interests and values, Freedman offers us examples of people who are "engaged in work that moves them beyond narrow personal concerns to concern for others." These are people committed to "giving back" and "giving forward" to their communities. His re-telling of their stories inspires and teaches, and as I read them I realized that many of my assumptions about aging were false. Freedman confronts these assumptions, following up with an outline of more progressive points of view by scholars such as Peter Laslett, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Mary Catherine Bateson, and others. He also presents conclusions of studies on the aging mind, which show that the mature psyche can be highly adaptable to change, steady in the face of adversity, and adept in navigating the shoals of uncertainty.
After presenting the problems and the potentials inherent in the aging process, the author draws on his experience as a social entrepreneur to outline steps for moving our society toward harnessing the gifts that older people can offer. These include making it easier for people to return to school to for re-training, more use of National Service programs by older people, updating employment policies, and setting up special savings accounts that people can draw on to help manage their encore transitions. But number one on his list is "thinking differently." All the other steps depend on our ability to shift our attitudes about aging. Freedman's book has helped me to do that, and I'm recommending it to all my friends who want to continue to grow in spirit as they grow older.
A good question! Marc's book provides valuable insight on how this happens. The short answer is - it isn't easy to do and it does take a long time. Marc notes that it is a "long distance quest - big projects requiring vision, language, leadership, institutions and often social movements with multiple thinkers..."
We are fortunate that visionaries such as Marc are taking the lead to define this post midlife stage. There are a lot of us at this stage who are eager to be part of this change. In the Boston area, Discovering What's Next ([...]) is one community group that has taken Marc's messages to heart. A great way for everyone to begin is to read this book and start having community conversations about it.